You’ve heard the phrase-but have you really thought about it?
- Many couples worry that so-called “sexual incompatibility” signals the end of their relationship.
- But “sexual incompatibility” is not that different than another other relationship difference, such as disagreements about finances or chores.
- Most couples are able to bridge sexual mismatches with patience and dedication.
The Myth of “Sexual Incompatibility”
In graduate school, while studying to become a therapist, I learned that couples fight about predictable issues on which the partners’ views differ: parenting, finances, sex, household chores, extended family (like in-laws), and a few scattered other things. I was also taught that while the couple may tell you their fight is about the kids or money or even sex, it’s really about a bigger issue or dynamic, one that’s more subtle and difficult for most couples to identify. Bigger issues can include themes of power and control, autonomy, closeness vs. distance, and boundaries, for example.
If you have heard me present, you know that I believe language matters. What we call something has an impact and frames how we think and feel about it. This is why I bristle every time I hear a client say, “We are sexually incompatible.” To be “incompatible” implies something is incapable of existing alongside something else (which can be polarizing in these current times)-and saying, “We are sexually incompatible” has huge implications for sex and relationships.
Let me ask you this: If you and your partner disagree over some aspect of how you parent your children, would you describe your differences as a “parenting incompatibility”? Once you realize you and your partner have vastly different relationships with money, would you tell your friends that you and your spouse are “financially incompatible”? When you fight over who cleans the toilet and how frequently, do you think of it as a “chores incompatibility”? (To which I say, just hire a housecleaner if you can afford it-or rework the household budget to figure out how to afford it. Life is too short to spend it bickering with your partner over a dirty toilet when you could devote your precious attention and energy to more life-affirming endeavors.)
Generally, the answer to these questions is no-these are just differences. So why do we jump to describing sexual differences as “sexual incompatibility”? And more importantly, what are most people trying to convey when they use the language “sexually incompatible”? What meaning do they put on this “sexual incompatibility”? And what are the consequences of acknowledging the so-called “sexual incompatibility”?
What most people are describing when they say “We are sexually incompatible” is that they have sexual differences they have not yet figured out how to manage. For example, if partner A likes sex in the morning and partner B likes sex in the evening, well, how can we bridge that difference? How do you bridge your differences about parenting or money or cleaning the toilet? The strategies are not that different from one difference to the other. This is the work every couple must learn to do and then do and solving sexual problems is no different.
John Gottman states that in every long-term relationship, there are solvable problems and perpetual problems. Solvable problems are exactly that: solvable. When they come up for a couple, the couple has the tools to solve it and the problem gets solved. It may not be a permanent solution-but it’s a good enough solution to both partners for now, and they know and understand that the next time the problem comes around, they will work to solve it again. What’s more, they have the confidence that they can solve it because they solved it before.
But then there are perpetual problems, meaning that every time the problem comes up, the couple cannot solve it. Gottman’s research finds that 69 percent of most couples’ problems are perpetual problems. This means they will always be there every time the issue comes up because the two partners are fundamentally different people and it has to get renegotiated each time. Let that sink in: 69 percent of all couples’ problems are perpetual problems.
For the couples that seek out my help, sex is often one of their relationship’s perpetual problems. Many clients show up to my doorstep or Zoom screen feeling demoralized, hurt, hopeless, and scared. But it doesn’t have to be this way, because sexual differences are just that-differences, not necessarily “incompatibilities.”
Now, of course, there are exceptions and times when-in my professional opinion-yes, there are sexual differences that are really, really hard to bridge and that border on real “incompatibility.” Some examples might be partners who differ in their sexual orientations (i.e. one partner is heterosexual and the other is homosexual-yes, these relationships and ); or one partner who has an inflexible fetish, meaning they cannot become sexually aroused unless their fetish object is part of the sexual scenario and the other partner does not want to/will not participate.
Those are bigger differences and harder bridges to build-though that doesn’t mean doing so is impossible. But even then, it could be argued that these sexual incompatibilities could be bridged in ways that are workable and acceptable to both partners. The question is: Do you have it in you-do you have the internal resources-to do the work to figure that out?